Inspired by Russia, Shantanu & Nikhil to present The Tapestry collection

There is a big opportunity to do a tie-up of sending the couture culture from India and mixing it with a contemporary culture of another country, Nikhil Mehra says. Source: J&M Image Studio

There is a big opportunity to do a tie-up of sending the couture culture from India and mixing it with a contemporary culture of another country, Nikhil Mehra says. Source: J&M Image Studio

Shantanu Mehra and Nikhil Mehra in 1999 founded the brand ‘Shantanu & Nikhil’, and have become one of the most popular designer duos in the Indian fashion industry. In this free-wheeling conversation with RIR, Nikhil Mehra talks about his upcoming collections, larger-than-life opulent weddings in India and why he is planning to visit Russia next year.

Indian weddings, especially when girls wear so called haute couture clothes, look like some exhibitions in the fashion museums, but not real life. Bollywood is also more like a kingdom of dreams than the real life. That’s how I see it as a foreigner. What’s your take on Indian weddings?    

I think that our country is a fantasy land. We are the country of kings. Our culture has always been one of big celebrations. It has always been a lot of colour. Each culture within the country has its own fantasy going on and this is reflected in weddings. It is an opportunity to showcase our fantasy, our culture and also I think that we are still a very young country as much as our culture is very old. When it comes to celebration, we like to showcase all the talents, all the techniques that we have inherited from generations.

For example, at the time of the Kings, a lot of people wore certain fabrics like saris, just to showcase their position in society. The same thing still exists. We wear certain clothes to showcase our position in society and that is why marriages are so opulent. That is one way of showcasing how rich or how luxurious we are. And Bollywood, of course, is tends to play up fantasies. So the singing and the dancing, all that go straight into the wedding and the bride is always used as the princess. She is like the most important person for a wedding. So when it comes to clothes, her make-up, her jewellery, everything is larger than life.

You designed a lot of clothes for famous people. Do you need first to know stars like Aishwarya Rai personally and design something special for them?

I met her three weeks ago just like what you are saying. She called me and I was in her office/house with three gowns of mine and she wanted to see some of the new gowns that we were doing. She liked the one she saw in q show. So her manager sent me that image on message and said, “Aishwarya loves this, can you meet her with a few more options?” and so when I was in her house and she came, first we started talking. We spoke for about 15 minutes about life, about design, about what colour palettes and then, we started doing the fittings. At the time of the fittings, it is a great experience to discuss design with an icon like Aishwarya because she has worn almost every design in the world and to be able to still have conversation about new things like new textures, new silhouettes, it is a great experience.

A lot of times, we look at our client and then we make an outfit. So now that I met Aishwarya, my next outfit for her will be inspired by her and then, I will go across again and meet her. This time though, she looked at the collection and she picked up what she liked. So sometimes what happens is that a celebrity looks at the piece and says, “Oh, I can wear that so easily. That’s just like my style,” and so they pick up the piece that they like. At other times, we design especially for them.

There are more and more trends in each and every part of life inspired by high-tech. Is there such a trend in fashion?

I still feel, because we work in India and our design philosophy is pretty organic, technology plays a big role in producing the product, but from a creative perspective, we have used only a few times technologically advanced fabrics like this one. It is the new print inspired by scuba diving. It does not crinkle. You do not have to iron it ever. So it is a very advanced fabric technologically, but we are still more ‘hand and touch’ as a culture. So we still use lot more organic fabrics than technically advanced. We have not reached that spectrum just yet.

There are different colour perceptions in different cultures. In India sometimes you see quite a crazy mix of colours. Do you follow any specific colour perception?

Yes, it is a great question. There are two ways of looking at it. One is that you just do what you like and the other is you have observed it after you have done it and you realise, oh, this is very gentle or it is very avant-garde.

Nikhil Mehra. Source: Shantanu&Nikhil

Our colour palette is very emotional and that is because we are very emotional people. Our palettes are very feminine, very gentle. We use a tinge of vintage in everything we do. So we are possibly the only ones using gray in India. Indians do not use it, but we do collections in gray. We do collection in vintage rose colours and in mint greens, light salmons, dirty oranges. Like all the palettes that we use are more the very gentle, more make-up colours and it is because of the people we are. So we stay closest to who we are in our design philosophy.

There were some professions in India that were at your time quite unpopular. Designer was one of it. Have you faced some difficulties?

When I was in America, I was working for a company called St. John and in 2000, we came back. My brother was doing his MBA and he and I met in Los Angeles. We had a meeting and we decided that we are going back to India, set up our own business and help India grow from a design perspective. We came back, it was a big struggle. Nobody understood the value of design, nobody understood that this could even be a business. So when I would tell people that I am a fashion designer, they said, “Oh, that's good but what else do you do, what do you really do, what is your real job?” But that is my real job. It was like singing on the street for people, design was like that.

Five years later, it started getting better because we believed, we kept on believing that there is a purpose why we are here, we need to finish off, we need to make sure that we keep on creating clothes for people to wear and finally, they will arrive to that point and in 2014, we can clearly see that people now are driven by design and just in 14 years, India has transformed from not having any value in design to only going to designers for their wedding or going to designers for their parties or their brunches because they realise the value of design. It was a long struggle that I must say, it was not easy and also, this struggle got us a chance to understand our own country, what really works here.

Whatdid your parents think about your choice then?

My parents have always been very open to whatever we wanted to do. They went out of their way to sell their business to get us educated, but I told my mom that I wanted to be a fashion designer and my dad was really happy because my dad is a very creative person. He loves music, he sketches fabulously well. So he felt that I should follow my dream and on the other side, Shantanuwas always very good at studies. So he was always getting full marks. It was very good because one kid wants to be creative and the other kid is fully a businessman like a full student. So they told us go and do exactly what you feel like. Your experiences will teach you and that is exactly what happened.

There are many connections between India and Russia, but nothing happens with fashion. Could you suggest some areas for bilateral cooperation in this area?

It is really hard because we are focussing on collections which are focused on particular occasion. We do clothes for people who are getting married. So it is haute couture, one of a kind. I would imagine that if there is an opportunity of combining with another country to have an interface of couture, there is a big opportunity there to do a tie-up of sending the couture culture from India and mixing it with a contemporary culture of another country. Maybe, it would work, specifically for my brand, I have seen that we are focussing on the Indians who are getting married and that for us is a couture occasion.

Otherwise, haute couture is a dying art now because people do not spend thousands of euros for one outfit that they will wear once in four years but in India, there are weddings all the time. So we have been focussing on that. A lot of people from the other countries have a great opportunity here in India if they were to come and set up their bridal salons here because Indian women are always looking for new styles and new designs and they are very easy to adapt. This could be a great opportunity for a lot of people to come to.

Is it true that you are planning to come to Russia in the near future? For what?

Every collection that we do has an inspiration behind it. Our last one was inspired by Istanbul. It was called ‘Rani Sultanat’ which is the queen of a kingdom and so we used a lot of grey colours. We are really hugely inspired by architecture. So we use a lot of arches, the shapes to do our own show.

Now at the moment, we are working on a collection which is called ‘The Duchess’.  It is inspired by ‘The Duchess of the World’ who could be going to a palace for a party and having an extramarital affair with somebody else. So it is again an emotion-based collection. It talks a lot of about this woman who is living two lives. One, she is living with her husband whom she is not happy with, and the other with a lover. So how she dresses to change from being a Duchess to being a girlfriend and we are going to use fabrics and colours like that.

The next one is inspired by, we are doing research right now and we are focussing on all the old architecture of Russia, ‘The Tapestry’, the domes, the beautiful churches and all the details that went into making of those beautiful places and I think that there is going to be a storyline that we are working on right now about this one person who has another lover and they are making music. So we are still kind of making the story as we go along. Once we go to Russia, then we will get an idea but this will be for a big collection in Fall/Winter 15. It is going to be presented in a couture show in Delhi.

Which cities in Russia are you going to visit?

We are going to be in St. Petersburg in the first week of March. My team and I will go. We always travel, four of us and we will be doing the research on the architecture and the libraries and all the stuff.

If you will be able to share three or more things or trends of Indian fashion with foreigners, what would you choose?

So the first would be a sari gown, which is an inspiration from the sari but it is like a gown, you can wear it in nine seconds as opposed to wearing a sari which takes half an hour to wear. It works really well for women because they just slip into it, it makes you feel like it is a sari and it is very sexy. That would be a big trend for foreigners.

The other is that there is always a reference to the Indian jacket that women love, the Nehru jacket. So when we do a piece which is high neck collar, then it is very structural. The structure of India is something that people like a lot.

And of course, the technique. I think the third trend would be a tone on tone technique, and India which is subtle is a very popular thing with foreigners. We are also doing lot of gowns. We are doing a gown for a German client right now. She is getting married and she loves, she is dying to get married in a Western gown with an Indian touch because she is getting married in India. So we are doing a gown which is going to be Indian embroidery in tone but in a Western silhouette.

What do you think is the role of fashion in the men’s life? Should men be glamorous?

I think if men have an opportunity of being, they should be glamorous all the time. I am constantly telling my office as well, every time you come to work, you should look good. It is very critical. So for me when I go to Rome or Milan, your people dress up so well especially men, they take time out, they focus on what they look nice in and do up their hair in a certain style, they know what looks nice on them and that is so important.

If you have a chance to write your autobiography, what would you tell the world about yourself?

My autobiography would be me in seven-eight personalities, I am a split personality. I am not the same every day. I am a different person. I react very differently in different situations. So I think that every chapter will be different. It is always theatre for me. Life is a big stage. So right now, I am a designer. In an hour from now, I would be someone completely different. So I do not know, my autobiography may not be so interesting.

To understand the art, you should know the history of it. What about Indian fashion? Should we also know the history of India for understanding it?

Yes, you need to know Indian history because every artist, every designer is taking some part of India in his clothes. For example, for us, we are hugely inspired by the mix of Hindu and Islam. When the Ottoman Empire was finding its influence in India, the Islamic culture came to take over India, then they took the rose and they put it upside down and they made a dome. Now Islam and Hinduism is coming together. On Taj Mahal, all the domes on top, there is a rose which is upside down and it goes and that is the philosophy of India. So we use these philosophies in our clothes and every designer has a strong reference to India. So learning about India is very important or knowing a bit about the culture is very important.

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